Sunday, December 31, 2023

Misconstrued time

Within "Who Decides What Year It Is Anyhow?" comes a clear explanation of a one-time important change in the calendar:
Our current calendar, with its recognizable 12 months — one of them shorter than the rest — and a leap year every four years, takes its form from the Julian Calendar. Proposed by the famed Julius Caesar....

In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII issued a decree that addressed a seemingly small problem with the Julian Calendar. The Julian Calendar assumed that the sun’s circuit is exactly 365.25 days (thus providing a leap year every four years). In actuality, the sun takes 365.2422 days to complete its path. While this differential — only 11 minutes or so — may seem too trivial to matter, those 11 minutes morphed the calendar after several centuries. The dates were straying farther away from the solar markers of time, such as the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. When Renaissance scholars took notice of this issue, they learned that the Julian Calendar was over-correcting by approximately eight days each millennium. ....

.... In the year 1582, Catholic Christendom hopped from October 4 to October 15 overnight to correct the languishing problem of misconstrued time. If you thought the calendar couldn’t get more confusing, you’re wrong! To make matters worse, many nations around the globe did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until centuries after 1582. For hundreds of years, nations were operating ten calendar days apart. (Pity the historians who have to track such discrepancies.) Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden did not transition to the Gregorian calendar until 1700. Great Britain and the United States followed suit in 1752, and Eastern countries including China, Turkey, and Russia did not switch until the early 20th-century.
For those of us concerned about a seventh-day Sabbath—Jews and some Christians—it should be noted that although dates were affected by the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the weekly cycle was unaffected. If in 1582 Oct. 4 was a Thursday, the next day, Oct. 15, was still a Friday.

Present laughter

I liked John McCormack's explanation of one of the reasons he enjoys working at The Dispatch:
On a personal level, what I missed most about The Weekly Standard was all the laughter that filled that office. It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve found that producing political journalism (especially when the state of our national politics is bleak) is much more enjoyable when you can laugh with your friends and colleagues about the many absurdities of politics, journalism, and daily life. Those are interactions that can’t be perfectly replicated in a Slack channel or a Zoom call, so it feels good to be back seeing colleagues, at least a couple days a week, in person.
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

"A pointless, inert drama"

Reviewing a film I won't bother to see:
.... The prospect of playing famous people who declaim at length about large ideas reliably attracts top actors, and so Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode step into the roles of Freud and “Jack” Lewis, as he was known to friends.

Mr. Hopkins, giving one of the laziest performances of his career, doesn’t even bother to dispense with his ordinary British accent....

Mr. St. Germain sets his fictitious play on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war against Germany. Lewis, by a previous invitation, arrives at Freud’s house in Hampstead for a cordial introductory chat that turns into an impassioned debate about faith, sex, truth and even jokes. Not a bad idea for a play, but the script has about as much depth as a term paper written by someone who spent 10 minutes with each subject’s Wikipedia entry. For supposed titans, these two sound a lot like college freshmen. ....

The play, and the film, intend to set out dramatized versions of grand arguments as they might have been made by two formidable men, inviting the audience to step right up and hear the question of whether God exists resolved in an entertaining hour and 48 minutes. Yet the script doesn’t even succeed in making either man seem interesting, much less historically important. ....

Tiresome digressions mixed in with philosophical banalities add up to a pointless, inert drama.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Never flustered

If you are searching for a New Year’s resolution that will lead you to success in life, it’s not too late. In fact, not being late is the whole point.

If you have driven down a certain street in Green Bay, Wis., you already understand this. The street is Lombardi Avenue, which runs directly past Lambeau Field, home of the Packers.

There is a large clock outside the football stadium. The clock may confuse or even startle people who don’t know about it. Isn’t it displaying the wrong time?

That depends on how you define “wrong.” The clock is set to run 15 minutes ahead. Your wristwatch or phone may say it’s 3:15 p.m., but the clock on the stadium says 3:30.

It’s set to Lombardi Time, to honor a demand the late Packers coach Vince Lombardi insisted his players obey: If you’re not 15 minutes early to practice, you’re late. And you can expect to be fined.

His point was that people who want to succeed should have the discipline and courtesy not to keep others waiting. It’s a matter of respect: respect for the people with whom you work, and respect for yourself. The way to guarantee that you’re never late—that you’re never in a flustered rush to begin a task—is to get there a quarter-hour early. ....
"If you are five minutes early, you are already ten minutes late."

Thursday, December 28, 2023

"Herod the king, in his raging..."

The carol mourns the death of the baby boys of Bethlehem when King Herod, having caught wind that one of them was destined to take over his job as king of the Jews, ordered their murder. The song itself was crafted for a medieval mystery play, performed annually in the city of Coventry from the late 12th century until Protestants shut down such rituals in the late 16th century. ....

...[T]he massacre of the babies of Bethlehem is commemorated each year as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast is held every Christmastide on December 28 — today. The Innocents are venerated as the first Christian martyrs, for, in the words of St. Augustine, “they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead.”

Kayla Bartsch, "The Bloody Tale behind the Coventry Carol," National Review, December 28, 2023.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

“The steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”

Paul Kingsnorth describes a journey: "After years of atheism, I went searching for the truth. I found Buddhism, then witchcraft, and eventually, Christianity." From "The Cross and the Machine":
.... “The story of Christianity,” wrote Moriarty, “is the story of humanity’s rebellion against God.” I had never thought of that ancient, tired religion in this way before, never had reason to, but as I did now I could feel something happening—some inner shift, some coming together of previously scattered parts designed to fit, though I had never known it, into a quiet, unbreakable whole.

A truth I would surrender to. What was this abyss inside me, this space that had been empty for years, that I had tried to fill with everything from sex to fame to politics to kensho, and why was something chiming in it now like a distant Angelus across the western sea?
For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,
And that which I was afraid of is come unto me.
Something was happening to me, and I didn’t like it at all. ....

Every living culture in history, from the smallest tribe to the largest civilization, has been built around a spiritual core: a central claim about the relationship between human culture, nonhuman nature, and divinity. Every culture that lasts, I suspect, understands that living within limits—limits set by natural law, by cultural tradition, by ecological boundaries—is a cultural necessity and a spiritual imperative. There seems to be only one culture in history that has held none of this to be true, and it happens to be the one we’re living in. ....

G.K. Chesterton once declared, contra Marx, that it was irreligion that was the opium of the people. “Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world,” he explained, “they will worship the world. But above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.” Here we were. ....

None of this is rationally explicable, and there is no point in arguing with me about it. There is no point in arguing with myself about it: I gave up after a while. This is not to say that my faith is irrational. In fact, the more I learned, the more Christianity’s story about the world and human nature chimed better with my experience than did the increasingly shaky claims of secular materialism. In the end, though, I didn’t become a Christian because I could argue myself into it. I became a Christian because I knew, suddenly, that it was true. The Angelus that was chiming in the abyss is silent now, for the abyss is gone. Someone else inhabits me. ....

I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint. Orthodoxy taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all, but enslavement to the passions: a neat description of the first thirty years of my life. True freedom, it turns out, is to give up your will and follow God’s. To deny yourself. To let it come. I am terrible at this, but at least now I understand the path. .... (more)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

"To lay aside his crown for my soul"

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
To lay aside his crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Then friends shall meet again, who have loved, who have loved,
Then friends shall meet again, who have loved;
Then friends shall meet again, in Jesus' presence, when
We'll meet to part no more, who have loved, who have loved,
We'll meet to part no more, who have loved.

Ye winged seraphs, fly! Bear the news, bear the news.
Ye winged seraphs fly! bear the news;
Ye winged seraphs fly! Like comets through the sky,
Fill vast eternity with the news, with the news,
Fill vast eternity with the news!

Anonymous; composite; 19th cent.
American folk tune; The Southern Harmony, 1840

O that birth forever blessèd

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory, evermore and evermore!
(Prudentius, 5th Century)

Friday, December 22, 2023


Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, (in the which Thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;) that in the last day when He shall come again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through Him who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost now and ever. Amen.
 (Thomas Cranmer)
Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. (Romans 8)

That day, when sent in glory by the Father,
The Prince of Life His blest elect shall gather;
Millions of angels about Him flying,
While all the kindreds of the earth are crying,
And He, enthroned above the clouds, shall give
His last just sentence, who must die, who live.

(Henry Vaughan)

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Norman Rockwell for Christmas

Monday, December 18, 2023

"Sceptical chiefly of conventional scepticism"

John Buchan on Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), "the greatest public figure of that time":
His character will be a puzzle to future historians, and it sometimes puzzled even his friends, since it united so many assumed contradictories. For example, he combined a real earnestness and a thorough-going scepticism. We find it in his philosophy. He approaches the world of simple faiths with reverence, and will never heedlessly disturb them, since he not only sees their practical value but shares in their spiritual appeal. He is sceptical chiefly of conventional scepticism. He has none of the poetry and the sudden high visions of the great system-makers; he is never exalté, his metaphors are never grandiose, he builds no cloud cities. But he does provide a rational basis for belief, and, speculatively, he clears the air and defines the problems which he leaves for later and more fortunate philosophers to solve. ....

He had none of the Victorian belief in progress. He saw no golden age in the future, and he doubted the existence of any in the past. Hope and dream, he seemed to say, but if you are wise do not look for too much; this world is a bridge to pass over, not to build upon. But at the same time he revered the fortitude of human nature, the courage with which men stumbled up the steep ascent of life. It was the business of a leader, he thought, not so much to put quality into his following as to elicit it, since the quality was already there. ....

But the most remarkable union of opposites was his devotion to what was old and his aliveness to what was new. He had the eighteenth-century sense of living in a world which was not made yesterday and emphatically would not be remade tomorrow, and he saw the long descent of the most novel problems. Like Burke, he would not destroy what many generations had built merely because some of the plasterwork was shaky. At the same time he was wholly in tune with his age and aware of every nuance of the modern world. He would never admit that there was any merit in a thing merely because it was new, but he gave it a judicial examination. ....

So unique a combination of qualities rarely combined made him a major force in public life, whether in or out of office. As I have said, he had none of the gifts which attract an easy popularity. He had his shortcomings too. Sometimes he used his powers on behalf of an obscurantism which was not his true creed. But he was a very great servant of the State and a great human being. To many there was something chilly in his aloofness from the passions of the market-place, something not quite human. Could he suffer and rejoice like an ordinary creature? Assuredly he could. I have seen him in old age show the light-heartedness of a boy, and he could mourn long and deeply, though silently, for the loss of friends. As the phrase goes, he "maximised" life, getting and giving of the best, and on his death-bed he looked forward to the end calmly and hopefully as the gateway to an ampler world.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The dawn will break

Reflecting on the traditional liturgy as Christmas approaches:
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” derives from a far older cycle of Advent prayers called the O Antiphons. From the eighth century, the Western church has prayed these antiphons during Evening Vespers in the final days of Advent (December 17-23), calling out to the imminent Christ by a different title each evening. The vocative “O” resembles, in the words of theologian Oliver Treanor, “the womb of the Virgin in late pregnancy, round and full of Christ,” and each prayer calls out to the imminent Christ by a different title: O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of Nations, and finally, O Emmanuel.

These different prophetic titles given to Christ offer hearers multiple ways to receive the news of the gospel—that Christ came to atone for the sins of his people. Rich in symbolic imagery, history, and poetry, the O Antiphons speak to the mysterious and paradoxical nature of the Christmas story, in which an all-powerful God enters human history not in a blaze of almighty glory, but as a helpless child, out of wedlock, wrapped in swaddling clothes. ....

In the final title given to Christ in the antiphons, Emmanuel—God-with-us—humans are joined with God forever, as the hyphenation suggests. That God would take on human frailty, would suffer with humanity and in human flesh, is the basis upon which the logic of creation is radically upended: the wolf will live with the lamb, the last will be the first, and the meek will inherit the earth. In this new order even the most intractable human situations, in which hate or vengeance or greed seem destined to persist, become ripe for change. ....

We are far from the first, and won’t be the last, generation to call out for God to, as one of the antiphons puts it, “come and save man whom you made from clay.” The promise alluded to in the prayers is not that the darkness will never close in on us, but that when it does, the dawn will break too, even in a manger, even on a cross, even in a tomb. .... (more)

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Mr. Standfast

I've been enjoying these commentaries on the Hannay books by John Buchan — and especially having come to the one about Mr. Standfast, the book from which I chose my alias for this blog. There is also an explanation of the book's relationship to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Those speaking are Ursula Buchan, a granddaughter and also biographer, of Buchan, and Michael Redley, an historian.

With The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916) this novel makes the third of a trilogy on aspects of the First World War. Buchan’s History of the War afforded him inside knowledge that fed his novels with realism, to which he added the spice of imagination. (In 1917 he was Director of the Department of Information, in 1918 Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information.)

His tale moves swiftly. The scene changes purposefully through London, a fictional Home Counties location, Glasgow, the Highlands and Islands, and Switzerland to prepare the way for a climax in the great German offensive of March 1918 – Ludendorff’s last, almost successful gambler’s throw.

Buchan’s description of the accompanying artillery barrage is ominously and compellingly realistic: you hear the low thunder of the encroaching guns. And the Allied trenches provide a dramatic setting for the death of the spy hunted by Richard Hannay and his little team of counterspies.

The threat from pacifism which was a genuine feature of the war years gives the spy his cover; there is a space for Red Clydeside; the submarine menace is used in an unexpected way; some Highland local colour is apt for the period but also for the people described; and generally the characters present a wide spectrum of wartime life.

Hannay has something of the now conventional amateur who beats the professionals at their own game. The spy’s identity may well be based on someone involved in a scandal that affected the Kaiser’s entourage. There is a sympathetic portrait of a conscientious objector. An American character already in Greenmantle, John Scantlebury Blenkiron, is perhaps the author’s way of saying ‘Come over and help us’ – which had to wait for the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmermann telegram for its realisation. The young, clever and effective female agent, Mary Lammington, makes up for the (sometimes needlessly lamented) virtual lack of women in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Not least we have the war in the air: a newcomer, Archie Roylance, will reappear in Buchan’s later novels. ....

Christmas past

From Dickens' Pickwick Papers.
...[N]umerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home! ....
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, Chapter 28.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The hinge of history

On the importance of knowing whose birth we will celebrate on Christmas (John 1:14):
Who then was Jesus, really?

You cannot even ask the question without implicitly choosing among answers. The very wording of the question, in the past tense ("Who was Jesus?") or the present ("Who is Jesus?"), presupposes its own answer. For those who believe his claim do not say that he was divine, but is divine. Divinity does not change or die or disappear into the past. Furthermore, if he really rose from the dead, he still is, and is very much alive today.

The Importance of the Issue

The issue is crucially important for at least six reasons.

1. The divinity of Christ is the most distinctively Christian doctrine of all. A Christian is most essentially defined as one who believes this. And no other religion has a doctrine that is even similar. Buddhists do not believe that Buddha was God. Muslims do not believe that Muhammad was God: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

2. The essential difference between orthodox, traditional, biblical, apostolic, historic, creedal Christianity and revisionist, modernist, liberal Christianity is right here. The essential modernist revision is to see Christ simply as the ideal man, or "the man for others"; as a prophet, rabbi, philosopher, teacher, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, reformer, sage or magician—but not God in the flesh.

3. The doctrine works like a skeleton key, unlocking all the other doctrinal doors of Christianity. Christians believe each of their many doctrines not because they have reasoned their own way to them as conclusions from a theological inquiry or as results of some mystical experiences, but on the divine authority of the One who taught them, as recorded in the Bible and transmitted by the church.

If Christ was only human, he could have made mistakes. Thus, anyone who wants to dissent from any of Christ's unpopular teachings will want to deny his divinity. And there are bound to be things in his teachings that each of us finds offensive—if we look at the totality of those teachings rather than confining ourselves to comfortable and familiar ones.

4. If Christ is divine, then the incarnation, or "enfleshing" of God, is the most important event in history. It is the hinge of history. It changes everything. If Christ is God, then when he died on the cross, heaven's gate, closed by sin, opened up to us for the first time since Eden. No event in history could be more important to every person on earth than that.

5. There is an unparalleled present existential bite to the doctrine. For if Christ is God, then, since he is omnipotent and present right now, he can transform you and your life right now as nothing and no one else possibly can. He alone can fulfill the psalmist's desperate plea to "create in me a clean heart. O God" (Ps 51:10). Only God can create; there is even a special word in Hebrew for it (bara').

6. And if Christ is divine, he has a right to our entire lives, including our inner life and our thoughts. If Christ is divine, our absolute obligation is to believe everything he says and obey everything he commands. If Christ is divine, the meaning of freedom becomes conformity to him.
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, IVP, 1994, pp. 151-152.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

"Lo, He comes..."

Advent is a time about the "already but not yet": the time between the coming of Messiah and the time when He comes again. Three prayers composed for this season:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which Thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through Him who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

O LORD, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

ALMIGHTY God, we beseech Thee, grant unto Thy people grace that they may wait with vigilance for the advent of Thy Son our Lord, that when He shall arise from Thy right hand to visit the earth in righteousness and Thy people with salvation, He may not find us sleeping in sin, but diligent in Thy service, and rejoicing in Thy praises, that so we may enter in with Him unto the marriage of the Lamb; through His merits, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

"Pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable"

From ""The Power of Wise Custom" by Thomas Howard:
How should we worship?

It would seem presumptuous in the extreme for any mortal to take upon himself the authority to dictate to another how to worship. "Good heavens, man, are you serious? You are outgodding God. Don't tell me how to worship."

Who, indeed, will presume to legislate here? Surely God loves the spontaneous noises of his creatures: the buzzing of the wasp, the croaking of the frog, the scream of the eagle. Would this not include my own staggering efforts to find impromptu words with which to praise him? The form, or formlessness, of public worship is purely a matter of taste.

Not altogether. Those who urge this upon us forget two things: first, there is no such thing as spontaneity in any regularly recurring public occasion. Quakers, Brethren, and Pentecostals all would testify to this. Anyone from any of those "informal" purlieus will tell us that everyone present knows exactly what is going to happen, and when, and with what phraseology. There is an unmistakable beginning to the "service" and an unmistakable end; and what happens in between is what happened last Sunday, and the Sunday before that, ad infinitum. ....

Anyone who has lived with the burden of producing perennially impromptu prayers knows what an ordeal it is to keep those prayers "fresh". In fact, such a person knows that you cannot. You are reduced to piecing together a sequence of phrases familiar in your tradition. ....

C.S. Lewis felt rather strongly in this matter (though he considered himself a man who did not naturally like ritual; it embarrassed him). Speaking of ritual, he wrote, in Preface to Paradise Lost, "those who dislike ritual in general—ritual in any and every department of life—may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance."
Thomas Howard, "The Power of Wise Custom" (2000), collected in The Night is Far Spent, Ignatious Press, 2007.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Victims and oppressors

10/7 exposed the moral confusion—a charitable way of putting it—of the identitarian/critical-theory/social-justice/intersectional ideology which divides the world into victims and oppressors based on screwball notions of race, sex, and history. This provides the bizarre taxonomy in which Arabs are lumped with Sub-Saharan Africans and gay Westerners and Israelis with Victorian colonialists. If academia ran by the rules of logic, this would be a reductio ad absurdum. The absurd conclusion is that a movement of misogynistic, homophobic, totalitarian, theocratic, genocidal fanatics is a form of liberation and resistance to oppression. Something must be deeply defective in any set of assumptions that would lead to this wacko conclusion. “Queers for Palestine” should have been a bit of mordant black humor from the Onion or Titania McGrath, but it’s all too real.

Friday, December 8, 2023

The Detection Club

What did mystery doyenne Agatha Christie and Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne get up to when they hung out together? If you answered, “Dress up in blood-red-and-black robes, brandish potential murder weapons and flaming torches, and swear oaths on an actual human skull with glowing red eyes,” then you’ve clearly heard of the Detection Club. ....

The club’s headquarters were originally located between an oyster bar and a brothel, and they occasionally enjoyed the sort of misadventures you might expect from a gang of exceedingly British mystery writers who routinely met to get liquored up and conduct goofy ceremonies. ..... But while the club initially formed as a social group for writers of detective fiction, it did have an official purpose: to uphold a rigid set of standards for crime fiction, and weed out any potential members who wouldn’t agree to meet them. ....

This is commonly known as the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, and the members of the Detection Club were among its stars. Besides Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, and A.A. Milne (whose 1922 whodunnit The Red House Mystery predated the first Winnie-the-Pooh book by four years), the first membership roster included Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (she sometimes worried that club members might be mistaken for employees of the brothel next door), and Scarlet Pimpernel creator Baroness Orczy, whose popular “Old Man in the Corner” stories typified the “armchair detective” trope. ....

On paper, the Detection Club seemed dedicated to upholding its own set of standards for the genre. At their induction ceremony, new members promised the solutions to their mysteries would never rely on “Revelation, Female Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.” They also swore never to “conceal a vital clue from the reader,” to practice “a seemly moderation” when it came to things like death-rays, ghosts, trap doors, and lunatics, and to “honor the King’s English.”

Once the candidate placed a hand on club mascot Eric the Skull—whose eyes would be glowing red at this point, thanks to some fancy wiring work by founding member and former electrical engineer John Street (a.k.a. John Rhode)—and swore to abide by those guidelines, the club president would offer both a benediction and a curse: rave reviews and film adaptations for members who observed the rules, and a plague of typos, lagging sales, and libel lawsuits for members who broke them. ....

Over the years, the Detection Club evolved. The “Golden Age” of detective fiction ended with the onslaught of World War II, and psychological thrillers and noir stories supplanted the classic, puzzle-based whodunnit. New membership and club activity dropped off sharply during and after World War II, and the group eventually opened its roster to authors whose work didn’t meet their original, stated criteria. Patricia Highsmith was a member, as were John le Carré and Dick Francis.

The club is still active today, under the presidency of British crime writer Martin Edwards. Members meet three times per year and occasionally collaborate on publishing ventures.... New members must still lay a hand upon the club’s resident skull, but there is one notable change: “Eric” is now called “Erica.” In a twist that might have once gotten a potential member blackballed, it turns out the skull was female all along.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

St Nicholas Day

Today was St. Nicholas Day. Kevin DeYoung on "Who Was St. Nicholas?":
The unsatisfying answer to the title of this post is that we don’t know as much as we would like. We know that a bishop named Nicholas existed, that he had a great influence on his homeland, and that he probably died on December 6. While we should be careful to separate fact from fiction, there are elements of the Nicholas story we can know—and what can be known is worth retelling.

According to the best estimates, Nicholas was born around AD 280 in Patara, in Asia Minor. He later became bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 on or near December 6. ....

The most famous story involved three girls who were so destitute that they were going to be forced into a life of prostitution. But Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window as dowries for the young women.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold). ....

.... Luther rejected the saints’ days, believing they were built upon legends and superstitions (and a virulent strain of moralism we might add). In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl. Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.

The cult of St. Nicholas virtually disappeared in Protestant Europe, with the exception of one country: the Netherlands. If you love Christmas with all the trappings of Santa Claus and stockings and presents, thank the Dutch. If you despise all that, try to ignore my last name for the time being. The Puritans had done away with St. Nicholas and banned Christmas altogether. But the Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World. In the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas. ....

At any rate, it is easy to see how Sinterklaas evolved in America to Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English speaking world and beyond.

How should Christians relate to the traditions of Santa Claus? C.S. Lewis embraced them and so included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Other Christians, fearing syncretism, stay clear of Santa, reindeer, and a tree full of presents. I’ll leave it to you and your family to form you opinions on observing the Christmas holiday (see Rom. 14:1, 5-6). ....

But if you have a lot of Santa Claus around, why not use him to your benefit and talk about the real St. Nicholas. We don’t know a lot about him, but we know he lived and was revered. According to legend—one of those stories that probably isn’t true, but should be—when Nicholas was little boy he would get up early in the morning to go to church and pray. One morning, the aging priest had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the morning should be the new bishop of Myra. When Nicholas was the first to enter, the old priest, obeying the vision, made the young boy bishop right on the spot. But before he consecrated Nicholas a bishop, the priest asked him a question. “Who are you, my son?” According to tradition, the child whose legend would one day become Santa Claus replied, “Nicholas the sinner.” Not bad for a little boy. .... (more)
Kevin DeYoung,"Who Was St. Nicholas? Clearly Reformed, December 6, 2023.

Watership Down

Russell Moore presents his annual ten favorite books list: "My Favorite Books of 2023." The first on the list is Watership Down: The Graphic Novel. I had missed its publication but now that I know it exists I am sorely tempted. Moore:
Once, I mentioned the novel Watership Down and a young man said, “Yeah, I read that when I was a kid. It was really sweet.” After a couple of minutes of confusion, we realized he was thinking of The Velveteen Rabbit. The rabbits in Watership Down are anything but velveteen. The book deals with the darkest aspects of human existence projected onto the lives of warrens of rabbits—murder, envy, rivalry, exile, scapegoating.

That’s why I loved this graphic novel. The artwork captures what the book is attempting: to give the reader the vertigo of seeing animals we are acculturated to view as harmless while at the same time seeing the tension, peril, and depravity that we pretend we don’t see in ourselves. The last page, particularly, is astoundingly beautiful.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you—digger, listener, runner, Prince with the Swift Warning. Be cunning and full of tricks, and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Knowing stuff matters

When college students who sympathize with Palestinians chant “From the river to the sea,” do they know what they’re talking about? I hired a survey firm to poll 250 students from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. Most said they supported the chant, some enthusiastically so (32.8%), and others to a lesser extent (53.2%).

But only 47% of the students who embrace the slogan were able to name the river and the sea. Some of the alternative answers were the Nile and the Euphrates, the Caribbean, the Dead Sea (which is a lake) and the Atlantic. Less than a quarter of these students knew who Yasser Arafat was (12 of them, or more than 10%, thought he was the first prime minister of Israel). Asked in what decade Israelis and Palestinians had signed the Oslo Accords, more than a quarter of the chant’s supporters claimed that no such peace agreements had ever been signed. There’s no shame in being ignorant, unless one is screaming for the extermination of millions.

Would learning basic political facts about the conflict moderate students’ opinions? ....

In all, after learning a handful of basic facts about the Middle East, 67.8% of students went from supporting “from the river to sea” to rejecting the mantra. These students had never seen a map of the Mideast and knew little about the region’s geography, history or demography. Those who hope to encourage extremism depend on the political ignorance of their audiences. It is time for good teachers to join the fray and combat bias with education. (more)

Saturday, December 2, 2023

"Plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship"

I think I first encountered R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke on the fiction shelves of the old Milton College Library. He became a favorite and I find the books can be re-read with pleasure. The Eye of Osiris (1911) was only the second in the series to be published. Many of the Freeman books are out of copyright and can be found in downloadable form at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. The Eye of Osiris can also be read online there, although I liked this site more as a reading experience. About the author and the book:
Richard Austin Freeman (1862-1943) is without question one of the most important and influential authors of the Golden Age of detection, having begun his career in the genre at the beginning of the century and continuing to produce notable mysteries up until the middle of the second world war. Freeman had qualified as a doctor in 1886 but had been unsuccessful in maintaining a career in general practice which would enable him to support his family. ....

In 1907 Freeman made the first step which was to lead to his becoming one of the most celebrated mystery writers of the day when he created Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, and published the first book to feature him, The Red Thumb Mark. One of the first mysteries to deal with fingerprint evidence, it was selected as a Haycraft Queen cornerstone, as was his next published novel, The Eye Of Osiris. ....

In The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club Dorothy L. Sayers’ series-regular Charles Parker makes the following observation to Lord Peter Wimsey when the two come across their chief suspects detective fiction collection – ‘That fellow Freeman is full of plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship, isn’t he?’ In this book, we are given all of that and more. The scope of scientific and legal themes addressed is extensive and includes such diverse subjects as adipocere and the action of submersion in water on dead bodies, the laws on survivorship when a dead person’s body is missing, the art of embalming, dismemberment of bodies and the emerging innovation of x-ray photography. Thorndyke is knowledgeable on all these subjects and more, using his vast expertise to navigate through the issues which cloud the case. When it appears that there is someone manipulating the events from behind the scenes he is able to see their stratagems and the motive behind them, enabling him to deduce what has actually happened....

In many ways this is a mystery that is ahead of its time, incorporating all the elements which would be familiar to devotees of the Golden Age, though written a decade before the date usually regarded as when that era began. However, it also contains elements that echo back to the Victorian age, which is not surprising given Freeman’s love of Charles Dickens, a writer who was a notable influence on him. .... [T]his is a first-class mystery, fully deserving its status as one of the greatest and most influential detective novels of the Edwardian era.

Friday, December 1, 2023


The Christian season of Advent begins this weekend. Advent is about waiting — waiting with anticipation. The waiting that anticipated the coming of Messiah and the waiting that anticipates His coming again. From "Why Celebrate Advent?" by Timothy Paul Jones:
.... Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but passed long before his arrival.

In the process, Advent reminds us that we, too, are waiting.....

“The whole creation,” the apostle Paul declared, “has been groaning together for redemption.”

In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the paucity of the present moment but as expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now. In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. Just as the ancient Israelites waited for the coming of the Messiah in flesh, we await the consummation of the good news through the Messiah’s return in glory. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word. ....

Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once suggested that “all happenings, great and small, are parables by which God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Sacred names

Michael J. Kruger is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. He regularly teaches an elective, “The Origin and Authority of the New Testament Canon.” He writes "I think my students particularly enjoy a sub-module of that course where we study high-resolution photographs of early Christian manuscripts." I found this interesting:
...[W]e spend some time working through images of P66, one of our earliest (nearly complete) copies of John.

There’s lot to say about P66, and early manuscripts in general, but when students see a NT manuscript up close for the first time, they notice something rather peculiar and unexpected. They notice that the Greek words for “God,” “Lord,” Christ,” and “Jesus” are not written out in full. Instead, they are abbreviated.

To abbreviate these words, the scribe would typically take the first and last letter of the word and put a horizontal stroke over the top. As an example, below are two instances of such abbreviations, side by side. The first is the abbreviation for θεοῦ and the second for Ἰησοῦς.

 Scholars refer to this scribal phenomenon as the nomina sacra (“sacred names”). ....

Our earliest New Testament manuscripts, a number of which date from the second century, already utilize this feature as far back as we can see. As a result, the nomina sacra are now regarded by scholars as the primary way that we know a document is Christian. ....

The nomina sacra are designed to show reverence and devotion to the name(s) of God. Contrary to what the term “abbreviation” implies, the nomina sacra were not designed to save space. Instead, they were a way for the scribe (and, later, for the reader) to set apart the divine name. Thus, as strange as it might sound, they were a form of worship.

Of course, it should be noted that the earliest Christians didn’t show devotion merely to the words “God” or “Lord,” but also to the names “Jesus,” and “Christ.” Thus, the nomina sacra constitute one of earliest pieces of evidence for the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. They demonstrate a remarkably high Christology, at least among these Christian scribes. ....

In sum, this oft-overlooked feature has tremendous significance for our understanding of early Christian culture. Not only did the earliest Christians care about books, and the careful copying of such books, but the nomina sacra demonstrate that they had a rather developed scribal infrastructure to make that happen.

Moreover, the scribes appeared to be fairly theologically astute. Through these abbreviations, they expressed a view that Jesus deserved honor and devotion right alongside God. The bundle of names—God, Lord, Jesus, Christ—showed that Jesus was not considered a new and separate divine being, but (somehow) shared the same divine identity as the God of the Old Testament. (more)

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Hitchcock's favorite

With very few exceptions, I really enjoy films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. One of my favorites is "Shadow of a Doubt." From "Hitchcock’s Tale of Small-Town Evil":
...Hitchcock always claimed to hold in special regard his 1943 drama of small-town life threatened by the presence of a killer, “Shadow of a Doubt.” Joseph Cotten starred as Uncle Charlie, a murderer whose preferred victims are affluent widows but who, like so many Hitchcock villains, manages to charmingly conceal his villainy—especially to his worshipful family. ....

Hitchcock efficiently establishes the character of Uncle Charlie, whose natural habitat is presented in the film’s opening: Under a false name, he occupies a run-down rented room in an ugly, uninviting urban environment. Charlie is first seen lying in bed, a cigar in his hand and cash by his side, while brooding over his next move. After learning that two men are on his tail, he makes a hasty exit and seeks refuge in the bosom of his adoring relations in Santa Rosa, Calif. We do not yet know the specifics of Charlie’s criminality, but we know he is up to no good.

In a masterstroke, Hitchcock presents Charlie not in the company of criminals but, to better draw a contrast, among his wholesome, innocent extended family: his excitable sister, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge); her doddering husband, Joseph (Henry Travers); and their three well-adjusted children, especially their eldest daughter—nicknamed for her uncle by his sister—Charlie (Teresa Wright). In a delicious touch, Young Charlie—as she is credited in the film—is also introduced in a supine position: She, too, is seen brooding in bed. This Charlie is discontent with what she takes to be a dull, complacent existence. “We just sort of go along and nothing happens,” she tells her father...

This psychological drama is set against the richest sociological portrait Hitchcock ever attempted. Hitchcock uses the splendid setting of Santa Rosa—its tranquil neighborhoods, gracious front porches, patient policeman monitoring a street crossing—not just as atmosphere but to render Uncle Charlie a stranger in a strange land. He not only hails from a place geographically distant from Santa Rosa, but proves to be far slicker and more sardonic than his homespun kith and kin. Intuitively, Young Charlie says at one point that her uncle conceals an enigmatic inner self, but she is still startled when she first registers the reality that he is likely the sought-after “Merry Widow Murderer”—a jolt underlined by the rising in volume on the soundtrack of Franz Lehár’s “Merry Widow Waltz.” .... (more, but perhaps not available to non-subscribers)

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Sixty years on, not forgotten

A.N. Wilson, on C.S. Lewis sixty years after his death:
He died on the very day that President Kennedy was assassinated, Friday 22 November 1963, so it is not surprising that the event was overshadowed at the time. With the passage of 60 years, C.S. Lewis’s reputation is undiminished and the sheer range of his achievements as a writer and teacher appears ever more prodigious. For many, he is most beloved as the creator of the seven Narnia books: for others as the author of the science-fiction Space trilogy, which is not only a page-turner but horrifyingly and accurately prophetic.

For still others – and for a long time this would have included myself – the great work is his scholarly but always readable contribution to literary studies. I am thinking of the ever-accessible English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, or the wonderful account of how medieval humanity looked at the cosmos: The Discarded Image. ....

Another book I cannot recommend too highly is a short text he wrote in 1943, first given as lectures at the University of Durham, and published as The Abolition of Man. If I had absolute power, I would make every teenager, every teacher and every parent read this book. It would also be compulsory reading in all the philosophy departments of universities. The book is an analysis of what has happened since the 19th century to the picture of the world as drawn by clever people.

He was writing when Hitler was still in power and when, in order to defeat him, the western allies had embraced Stalin as an ally. But the powerful thing about the book is that he sees that the utter monstrosity of Hitler and Stalin’s worldviews derives from the Enlightenment and from the worldview of 19th-century agnostics, and that comparatively mild figures such as George Bernard Shaw or A.J. Ayer (not named in the text) have had a truly catastrophic effect on the way we think. ‘Many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. “Traditional values are to be debunked” and mankind to be cut into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent “ideologies” at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere specimens… begins to affect our very language – once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. ....

His fantasy of what the world will become as a result of the mild-mannered scientists and amateur philosophers is crudely but quite brilliantly painted in the third volume of the Space trilogy, That Hideous Strength. ....

He could be arrogant in debate and, like Samuel Johnson, he talked for victory, but he was a man of enormous humility. His Christian witness was perhaps most eloquent, not in his apologetics, but in the brokenness with which he tried to match ‘The Weight of Glory’ (the title of his best sermon) with all too human frailties. One thing is certain: he has not been forgotten. And there was a quality of greatness about him. Of all the writers of his generation, he is perhaps alone in being worthy himself of comparison to Dr Johnson. (more, perhaps behind a subscription wall)

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


For food that stays our hunger, 
For rest that brings us ease, 
For homes where memories linger, 
We give our thanks for these.

Monday, November 20, 2023

With grateful hearts

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

G Washington

Sunday, November 19, 2023


Lt. Gen. James Longstreet remains the Confederacy’s most controversial senior military leader. Born in 1821, the West Point graduate, like many of his future comrades in arms, served ably during the war with Mexico and on the Western frontier before resigning his commission in 1861 to join the Confederacy. ....

Longstreet commanded troops from brigade to corps level in the major battles of the war’s eastern theater and in 1863 scored a decisive victory at Chickamauga, the largest and bloodiest battle in the west. He opposed Lee’s ill-fated frontal attack—the famous Pickett’s Charge—at Gettysburg, and for this and other perceived failings, Lost Cause apologists and Lee acolytes have long blamed him for the Confederate defeat there, which, they argue, cost the South the war.

But Longstreet earned the lasting opprobrium of former Confederates less for his supposed failures at Gettysburg than for his rapid acceptance of Reconstruction and his early postwar membership in the Republican Party. He supported the integrationist policies of his friend President Ulysses S. Grant, advocated racial reconciliation, and rejected the Lost Cause mythology that absolved a saintlike Lee of any responsibility for Southern defeat.

Longstreet’s long and troubled postwar life (he lived until 1904) included duty as the commander of the interracial New Orleans police and Louisiana state militia, which he led in defense of the Republican state government against an attempted violent coup by white supremacists in 1874. Longstreet also served as United States minister to the Ottoman Empire. And for years he expended much energy waging literary war with Jubal Early and other Confederate veterans who sought to scapegoat him for the South’s defeat. ....